EAU CLAIRE, Wis. — In 1997, Dean and Sue Gumz had all but given up hope that their broken marriage could be repaired.
“Emotionally, I had already left,” Sue says, remembering that difficult period.
But after a last-ditch effort talking with their pastor, a small glimmer appeared, not so much in what the pastor had said, but in a brochure he’d tossed to the couple before parting.
It introduced them to Retrouvaille, a program designed to be a lifeline for hurting marriages. The two decided they had nothing to lose by signing up for the weekend event.
“I went into it not expecting it to be successful,” Dean admits.
“Me either,” Sue says. “I was just thinking, ‘OK, we’ll just make it look good, so when we do get a divorce, we can say we tried everything.’ ”
But everything changed the weekend of the event. “I found that, because of the Christ-centeredness of the program, my heart was open, and the Spirit took hold,” Sue says.
Nineteen years later, the couple looks back with gratitude. Their marriage not only survived the weekend, but thrived beyond it. To give back, they’ve become deeply involved in Retrouvaille, from registration assistance to serving as a lead couple.
“We’ve helped with around 65 programs so far,” Dean says, adding that they’ve come in contact with nearly 1,000 other couples on the brink of divorce.
The Gumzes will be present at an upcoming Retrouvaille weekend in Fargo, which organizers hope will be the first of many.
A peer-centered approach, Retrouvaille, which boasts a 70 percent success rate, involves lead couples who’ve experienced difficult times sharing their stories of hope.
A significant chunk of the weekend allows the attending couples time alone with each other, learning how to better communicate and, slowly and tenderly, reconnect.
Though Catholic-based, Retrouvaille welcomes all married couples, with or without faith.
“We’re Lutheran, so I was kind of worried about the (involvement of priests). I just wasn’t sure how a priest could understand marriage,” Dean admits.
But in the end, he says, the clergy mainly offered spiritual guidance, adding positively to the weekend.
Brad Gray, director of marriage and family life for the Diocese of Fargo, says Bishop John Folda has been wanting to introduce Retrouvaille to the area for some time.
“Retrouvaille has a long history of helping marriages that are hurting, and both the bishop and our priests have been confronting struggles within marriage in the faithful,” he says. “They wanted something to help couples rediscover the love that initially drew them together.”
He emphasizes that the couple’s identities are confidential. “This is not a group-sharing weekend,” he says. “You will not be expected to tell your story in front of other people.”
Rather, it’s a time for couples to come together and renew and refresh their relationship.
Gray, a divorced father, now remarried, knows personally of the need.
“Having gone through divorce, I see the wreckage it causes within families, and in the hearts of all the people involved,” he says. “That’s why I got into this ministry in the first place — to help prevent other couples from going through what I experienced.”
In divorce, he says, there are no winners. “It’s never a sign of something good,” he says. “It’s a sign that something has gone wrong — the dream has been broken or shattered.”
Though atheists are welcomed and have participated successfully in Retrouvaille, along with people of non-Christian faiths, Gray says, the spiritual component can be a great boost to the weekend.
“Ultimately, it’s not simply a husband and wife trying to summon within them the means of holding together something that’s falling apart,” he says. “Retrouvaille is conscious of, and promoting the reality, that God is there to heal, and so that is very much at the heart of Retrouvaille.”
At the same time, he says, “it’s got an accessibility that can take people at any faith level or even no faith at all.”
Jeff Bates, a local counselor, and his, wife, Michele, local program organizers, also understand personally the importance of Retrouvaille.
“I cannot praise this ministry enough,” Michele says. “Jeff and I have a rock-solid marriage now, but wish we’d had this available when we needed it. It truly is a privilege to be part of it.”
To prepare for the local event, the couple attended a weekend elsewhere to observe.
“Most couples are searching for something that will help them out of a lot of the pain and misery they are feeling,” Jeff says, noting they come at a variety of stages in their journey — from those recently married, to couples who’ve been at it a while and are ready to sign the divorce papers.
“It can be because of infidelity, sexual behavior, finances, children and more,” he says. “But the root of (the discord) is lack of communication. That seems to be a consistent problem of couples who need Retrouvaille.”
When communication breaks down, he says, intimacy usually follows. “It’s learning new skills, like how to listen, how to express feelings and be honest. That’s pretty much the essential part of the weekend.”
But at least one important condition exists for success, according to Jeff.
“Both spouses have to be willing to work on saving their marriage,” he says. “If one partner is unwilling to face the issues, they’re probably not ready to commit to Retrouvaille.”
Good marriages don’t just happen, he adds. “You need to work at it every day.”
Retrouvaille, he says, encourages couples to understand the difference between feeling love and being willing to love.
“Once that decision is made and the spouses act upon it, the feelings of romance and tenderness hopefully will follow and endure.”
If you go
When: Friday, Sept. 9, to Sunday, Sept. 11
Where: Fargo (site shared at registration)
Cost: $100 per couple (no one turned away; inquire about financial assistance)
To register: Call (701) 356-7962
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on Aug. 13, 2016.]